Rena Detrixhe, Red Dirt Rugs
As decorative objects, rugs begin life in a somewhat paradoxical position: lying on the floor, often under furniture, intended to be walked on but also to be enjoyed and admired as aesthetic actors. A well-chosen rug, we are taught, will tie a room together. In the case of Rena Detrixhe's Red Dirt Rugs, this act of unification is in the service of something larger than a literal room; conventional utility is replaced by a more conceptual social function. Detrixhe introduces us to her Rugs playfully: the trompe l'oeil effect of reddish earth precisely sculpted into a throw rug initiates our encounter with the delight of discovery as well as awe at her level of craft. Thanks to the red dirt from which they are made, the Rugs are self-evidently about Oklahoma and its people—but also, by extension, about all of our experiences of America, its landscapes, and its built environments. Crafted of the Oklahoma earth and sculpted into ornamental patterns, the Rugs simultaneously evoke frontier cabins and wealthy Victorian parlors. They are resolutely domestic, speaking of immigrants, class aspiration, old-world tradition (and taste), and hospitality. Elegiac and down-home, these Rugs bring apparently opposite concepts together (luxury and poverty, construction and destruction, nature and the man-made, sturdiness and fragility) through their creation of a space that is at once intimate and off-limits, familiar yet precious. Detrixhe creates the foliate and scrollwork designs of each rug from sneaker treads that she cuts into stamp-like templates, and their “found object” quality injects the precision of the rugs’ designs with a welcome element of improvisation. Sometimes recognizable, the stamped forms recall the well-worn hiker's mantra—"take only photographs, leave only footprints"—and like photographs, they offer personal traces, rather than factual documents, of histories and ecologies outside the gallery walls. Simultaneously indigenous and imported, the Rugs ask us to consider which parts of our history—and our present—we find comfortable, familiar, welcoming, or beautiful, and which parts we prefer to push out of sight.
Dirt, in the well-known formulation of anthropologist Mary Douglas, is "matter out of place," but Detrixhe's Red Dirt Rugs have their matter so carefully placed that they create a place for us—albeit an uninhabitable, precarious place. Oklahoma's "red dirt" is actually clay, used by indigenous people from the Mississippian period onward to make both domestic and ritual objects. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, it was also used to make the bricks that built colonizing towns across the indigenous landscape from which it was extracted. The dirt was thus Europeanized and politicized as it was transformed in material ways—and the violations of Indian rights and treaties were swept under the rug in the name of American progress. Underneath the "rug" of Oklahoma's red dirt, however, was (and is, although less and less) oil—oil that made some Native tribes wealthy as well as whites, and which is processed into a host of petroleum products, including the sneakers that Detrixhe uses as template elements for the surfaces of her Rugs. The process—and result—is disarmingly akin to building sand castles, and Detrixhe uses that sense of play to beguile us into a more profound consideration of the ongoing and intersecting histories of social and environmental (in)justice—without giving up the corresponding senses of wonder and beauty that come from our power to transform the world around us.
Louise Siddons, Ph.D.
Oklahoma State University
August 24, 2017